There is a cynical notion that art is a rip-off, a scam. It is near impossible to explain to those cynics that there are people who use this gift of artistic expression not to enslave but rather to free, to show that beauty is possible in the world, even in the most wretched of situations.
Vivien Kohler is such an artist, using his creativity as a beacon of hope. Kohler’s work, whether in its hyper-realistic figurative form or his more recent abstracted pieces, has always drawn from his surrounds– the realities which make up life in Johannesburg. Originally from Cape Town, Kohler’s figurative works were born from life amidst the gang-plagued environment of the Cape Flats. Against this environment, the influence of family and community instilled him with an outlook of togetherness and hope. This has become an interwoven conceptual thread through his work and process. In Aither, for example, an oil painting on found metal and board, a male appears to be ascending from a bed of cardboard. Works such as these echo sentiments of being able to transcend the seemingly hopeless realities of poverty and hardship. In this piece, as in so many others, Kohler paints layered surfaces of Masonite board to mimic the appearance of cardboard.
The cardboard box, for Kohler, refers to the dualism between poverty and excess so prevalent in this country. The metaphor which Kohler extracts from cardboard is twofold: on one level cardboard boxes allude to economic potentiality, having contained something of value. On a completely different level is a quality that most of us are far too familiar seeing in our urban environments – discarded cardboard boxes which have more in common with loss of potentiality and hope than the crisper variety. Kohler’s references this form of cardboard by introducing carefully added creases, tears and scuff marks on to the meticulously painted surface of cardboard. The figures he paints however are not shown as people who are trapped and hopeless. In works such as Those Who Dream a woman rests on a bed of sprawled cardboard. Her expression, not caught in the grips of torment, but somehow exuding a peacefulness, seems to convey a sense of tomorrow being a better day. This work sees Kohler use lettering in a manner which references the realness of the grungy Johannesburg inner-city he engages with on an almost daily basis.
In Kohler’s aesthetic deviation into the abstraction in his Pareidolia series of geometric cardboard constructions, we see him continuing the conceptual threads created in his figurative work which speaks to hope and hopelessness. This he does without the inclusion of the figurative forms. In this body of work which takes its name from the psychological term for the mind’s obsession for finding patterns in random objects, Kohler’s investigation with meaning and meaninglessness draws from the excess of cultural waste within this urban landscape. Works such as FRGL SML see Kohler attempting to make sense of the nonsense existing within the dualistic cityscape he inhabits. It is a duality which sees rough sleepers, living under buildings owned by billionaire moguls, to interrogating the architectural appearance of a city in conflict with itself. Terms such as ‘A world class African city,’ touch on a history of Dutch architecture attempting to fuse with contemporary African aesthetic. These works also ask questions of the art market itself which attaches value to conceptual importance of objects. Vivien Kohler’s repackaging of contemporary African existence via the appearance of discarded cardboard poses enough questions for buyers in Johannesburg, Cape Town and London to take note of him.
In a world of cynicism and negativity, Vivien Kohler’s creations are refreshing. His choice to provide an alternative viewpoint to the negative African narrative we see regurgitated so often, is an enlightening take of contemporary urban African life. Kohler portrays the harsh realities of the common African experience whilst simultaneously showing how a positive mindset is still possible. Vivien Kohler by no means is an artist who has figured out all life’s answers, his continuing interrogation of the African condition is alive in every piece he creates.